SAINT JOHN – Senior civil servants say that while New Brunswick’s public service continues to grow, the increases are exclusive to front-line services in health and education.

As well, Doug Tyler, deputy minister of strategic priorities, and Carolyn MacKay, deputy minister of human resources, said Tuesday the provincial civil service is not oversized compared to that of its neighbour, Nova Scotia.

During an editorial board meeting at the Telegraph-Journal, Tyler and MacKay said it’s wrong to say New Brunswick is top-heavy with bureaucrats when compared to Nova Scotia.

Recent numbers provided by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies indicated that New Brunswick has 12.9 civil servants per 1,000 residents, compared to 9.3 in Nova Scotia.

But Tyler and MacKay said when the province crunched the numbers, taking into account differences in the structures of the two governments, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have almost the same number of civil servants per 1,000 residents – 10.3 for Nova Scotia and 10.5 for New Brunswick.

“In Nova Scotia, a lot of the social support delivery programs, such as social assistance, social workers, etc, are delivered by municipalities and therefore those people are not on the civil service list,” Tyler said.

“When you compare apples to apples, as we have done, it is very, very close based on population.”

Tyler said that including casual workers, there are about 47,000 public servants in the province. They are divided between the three parts of the public service: part one, which is government departments; part two, which is the education sector; and part three, which is health.

He said efforts to reduce the size of the bureaucracy in New Brunswick have been focused on part one, the civil service, with some success.

“Part one has shrunk,” he said. “But the total numbers in the public service are growing. Parts two and three have seen significant increases in the numbers of front-line people.”

He said that in part one, about 73 per cent of the roughly 9,000 full-time civil servants provide front-line services to New Brunswickers, such as social workers and transportation workers.

Tyler said that in the education and health sectors, public servants are 85 to 90 per cent on the front lines and, as a result, are much harder to cut.

“We’re not here to make the case that the civil service is sized exactly the way it should be,” Tyler said.

“The premier has made it clear we are trying to bring the size of the civil service down through efficiencies”¦ It will happen over a period of time with retirements and that kind of thing. We’re not saying it’s sized right, but this is where we are. It’s easier to find efficiences in areas not designated as front-line. It’s much more challenging on the front-line services side.”

MacKay said retirements may not prove to be as effective in bringing down the size of the civil service as originally thought.

She said that although one survey found that 25 per cent of civil servants indicated a desire to retire, that’s not happening.

“What we’re seeing in reality is some folks are deciding not to retire,” she said.

“The demographics of government show that we are getting older. Thirty-two per cent of employees are aged 45-54 and 16 per cent of employees are 55 plus. We’re really looking at our efficiences so that as people retire, we will need less people to do the work. That’s our plan.”

The average wage in the public service is $50,000, MacKay said, excluding benefits and pension payments. That means a minimum wage bill of $1.6 billion.

Premier Shawn Graham’s Liberal government is under pressure to rapidly shrink the public service as the province faces a massive deficit and possible reductions in federal transfer and equalization payments down the road.

Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies said trying to figure exactly how big the province’s public service is compared to other jurisdictions isn’t really that important.

“The problem I have with these numbers is no one has figured out how big government should be to do the job it has to do,” he said in an interview.

Cirtwill said numbers published in 2006 indicate that New Brunswick has a grand total of 85 government workers – both municipal and provincial – per 1,000 residents. He said the number was 82 in Nova Scotia and the national average was 77.

Cirtwill said the provinces receiving equalization all had larger per-capita numbers of government workers compared to the provinces paying into the formula.

As well, he said, wage premiums for public servants tended to be higher in the poorer provinces.

He said New Brunswick can expect to feel a recession hangover in a few years time, once Ottawa puts the brakes on transfer and equalization payments.

“I think New Brunswick’s public service is going to shrink three to five years out,” he said. Cirtwill said another option would be for the Graham government to abandon its lower taxes strategy, but he said there are signs that it is working.

New Brunswick’s unemployment rate is below the national average for the first time in more than three decades, according to the Statistics Canada’s latest job numbers.

The labour force survey found 8.1 per cent of New Brunswickers older than 15 who wanted to work were unemployed in September, down from 9.3 per cent in August and below the national average of 8.4 per cent.